GOLDEN CHILD • by Kenneth Tanemura

On the second day of the Lunar New Year, we honored your maternal great grandfather’s life by going to the cemetery dedicated to revolutionary heroes and government officials in Hanoi. We stood by the famous anticolonialist revolutionary’s grave. Your auntie filled vases with long-stemmed roses. “Have you learned how to say a single word in Vietnamese?” you said, sarcasm dripping off your tongue. Your grandfather asked me in English to put my hands together and say a prayer for his father, Tran Tu Binh. I closed my eyes. I told Tran Tu Binh that I wish he and his wife can spend eternity together, because they had so little time together in real life. “You’re not my real father,” you said. Sarcasm dripping like mucus and bile from a dog’s mouth.

“Why must you talk like that, A-wut?” your mother said.

“I don’t want to hear another word from you today. I’m done with you,” I said.


 On the fourth day of the Lunar New Year, at a commemorative lunch to pay tribute to Tran Tu Binh, the men met in a detached studio. Three of us were called to stand at the head of the table next to your grandfather. Uncle Dong translated your grandfather’s speech to me: “These are my three sons-in-law. My sons-in-law are part of the family now, I appoint them guardians of this house.” Then he pointed to me and said, “This is the first guardian,” and he pointed to Dong and said, “this is the second guardian,” and he pointed to Hoc and said, “this is the third guardian.” I was the first guardian because I was married to your mother, the oldest of the three sisters. Your grandfather continued: “The bond between the three sons-in-law will grow and become very strong.” And he turned to me, and the guests crowded around the table, and they turned to me, and your grandfather said, “Being the first guardian of the house is an honor, but it comes with great responsibility.”

Did he mean the house he lived in with his wife, or the house, the figurative house, not the figure of a house that included you and your mother and your aunts and uncles? It had to include you. My stepson. If I was the guardian of what? I had no legal custody of you; that belonged solely to your mother. But what is the law? What is the law compared to shame and pride and compassion? The guardian of what? To protect. Who? Now what. Not the structure. Not the form, the floors, and the altar. Not the kitchen with its kitchen god, nor the room where your picture hung, framed, poster sized. Golden child, were you that?

A-wut, you weren’t the only one who challenged your parents. Soon as I started shouting back at my father, I began challenging him even more. “Why the hell didn’t you tell us what happened in the internment camps, coward!” He never had a comeback for that.

At most he’d mutter, “I wanted to protect you from it. What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” I moved out of the dorm on campus and back into my parents’ house. The house where I learned to walk and talk with my father’s help.

“The war ended 50 years ago,” I reminded him.  I wrote out Japanese characters the best I could on sheets of paper using a calligrapher’s brush I found in a Japantown bookstore. I scotch-taped the inky sheets still wet with Japanese characters to the window above the kitchen sink so anyone on the street could see them. When my father saw them, he dashed to the window and ripped the sheets off.

“Who the hell put these here?” he said, knowing it was me but not wanting to confront me. “You could get killed for doing that.”

“Not in 1994,” I said.


The Lunar New Year behind us, we meet in your grandfather’s — my father-in-law’s — kung fu studio every day to take lessons.  Just the two of us. Tile floor. An acoustic guitar in a black leather Yamaha case hangs from a wire hook that protrudes from a bamboo bookcase. Grandfather clock with a deer head above it. Teapot, teacups, jugs of beer and rice wine. Drawers of Chinese medicine labeled with Chinese characters. A ubiquitous skinny white cat. Recessed ceiling lights, poems written out on calligraphy. Wooden Wing Chun dummy in the corner we aren’t advanced enough to practice with. Voices from down the street raucous but the garden peaceful, dark, like the flowers are practicing kung fu with us. Both sliding doors flung open on a spring night. Your grandfather teaches you to slide when he slides. Meet his wrists with yours to block the blow, “invite the blow” as he says, instead of turning away from it. Pull it towards you, just past your hip. Quick strides back and forth like fox-trot steps. Your joy in movement. The laughter as you try to keep up with the sudden Ip Man-like counter moves to kicks with the knee and feet. The master wanting his grandson to grow stronger, us growing together, my clumsy middle-aged body turning to deflect the blows, striving towards grace, yearning for the physical elegance my body has always resisted but admired in others: athletes, dancers. His mock blows are acts of love, his arms tangle in yours, tie up and untie, the art of escape he teaches us both every night for an hour, as if to join us in this path towards gesture, our bodies becoming fluid.

For now, your soft body glides. I imagine white doves floating on white rose petals in the water. Long before any talk about attacking being the best self-defence.

Your rhythmic steps are enough, the body and the spirit follow one continuous flow across the floor. For now. 

A-wut, carry the torch I was not able to carry.

Go as far as you can, my son.

Kenneth Tanemura lives in and writes in Volusia County, Florida.

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